In May 2017 I had the pleasure to attend a special exhibition organized by Hermès in Milan, Italy. Ten artisans of the Parisian maison, which has more than 4500 people employed as “maîtres artisans”, came to the Brera district from May 11 to May 17 to share their experience. “Hermés – Behind the Scenes” allowed visitors to discover the craftsmanship and how they transform the materials creating bags, saddles, jewels, ties, watches, etc. The space became a giant laboratory, where the artisans worked and explained the core of their profession while answering the audience’s questions.
One of the most interesting parts was where the artisans showcased all the different phases to create the colorful carré, typical of the maison (for a carré to be authentic, it needs to have the carré title, the Hermés signature and the copyright).
This was truly a celebration of expertise and these meetings allowed visitors to understand what it means to be an artisan and to see the gestures of the trade in a very fascinating way.
The legendary Hermès artisans were from the ten “métiers d’art” – this is the way the maison calls the different production categories, like “le cuir” (leather). A documentary called “Les Mains d’Hermès” (Hermès Hands) was showcased in one of the adjacent rooms, perfect to delve deeper into the topic of workmanship. Seeing all those old ladies work brought to mind my maternal grandmother, who used to be so good at sewing and embroidering; a similar work for Hermès or one of these fashion houses would have been great for her!
The path of the exhibition stretched for ten areas dedicated to every single “savoir-faire” (on a surface of about 1000 m²) and people got to see the birth of each different Hermès item, witnessing the making of a dream.
What really surprised me was the attention to quality and how the removal of imperfections is essential for the final outcome.
People who enjoy horseback riding will have surely appreciated the section dedicated to the birth of a Hermès saddle (Hermès himself loved horseback riding); the process consists of a technician following the rider and the horse for a whole day, studying their habits and taking measurements in order to create a one-of-a-kind article. Hermès has been making saddles since 1837 and each saddle is hand-made by a single craftsman; the artisans make a saddle to the rider’s measurements that respects the horse’s well-being and the rider’s comfort, to enhance the sports performance. Saddles are manufactured in the Hermès workshop at 24, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and each saddle requires nearly 30 hours to be completed.
The creation process of the Kelly bag(one of the maison’s most iconic pieces, made famous by Grace Kelly in 1955 when she chose to wear it for a Life magazine cover story) was also one of the highlights of the exhibition. The bag is sewn by hand with two needles connected by a single thread, so it is different from the sewing machine technique. It takes more than 18 hours to complete a Kelly bag and the time can vary depending on the bag dimensions or the type of leather. The name of the artisan who crafted the bag is sewn on the inside of the bag, along with the fabrication date. The leather for each bag is selected according to very precise requirements and arrives at the atelier in hand-cut pieces. The inner goatskin lining is created first, and the base of the bag is then hand-stitched; each bag requires up to 2600 stitches, for each of which the leather must first be punched with a stitching pin.
In my opinion, the most beautiful section was the one dedicated to the “Maîtres horlogers” (master watchmakers) because I was able to see every aspect of the making-of; the artisans were super kind in letting me see the assembling of every small part. We also talked about my grandfather’s passion for luxury watches and seeing these precious items come to life was a captivating and emotional experience. According to a GQ article, “the qualities that make an Hermès scarf so covetable are the same ones that have turned its watches into covetable pieces.” Hermès started producing watches in 1928 and in 2006 started making its own movements, which led to the brand winning the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève award for Best Men’s Watch in 2011. Hermès makes its watches in Switzerland, as La Montre Hermès SA opened its own production headquarters in 1978. The company is also in charge of organizing international distribution through the brand’s stores and other retail networks.
The artisans’ savoir-faire and their excellent skills are what makes an Hermès product unique and what contributes to the French maison’s reputation of being the manufacturer of timeless, high quality items.
It was a privilege to watch them turn the materials in exquisitely crafted masterpieces, while realizing that to create one of these renowned objects one needs to have patience and perseverance (plus, it takes about 600 hours of apprenticeship to become an Hermès artisan), while we are used to a world where in most cases everything is created way too quickly.
Hermès organized other exhibitions like this one in the last few years (i.e. in Rome about three years ago) so if you are interested in discovering how many of its legendary items are created I highly suggest you visit the exhibition if it reaches your city!
Hermès Official Website
“Fashion: the Whole Story”, Marnie Fogg, Thames & Hudson, 2013
GQ Magazine, “How a Luxury Brand Best Known for Silk Scarves Made the Next Great Watch”, April 2022
All pictures are my own.
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